Podcast: Overcoming Resistance in Learning
Parents sometimes confuse two important issues. They care about their students getting the appropriate education, and so they prioritize what they consider the right subjects taught in the right ways through the right programs.
Meanwhile the child is resisting. That resistance is expressed as a global unhappiness with the subject or any effort required to address the subject. To create a desire to learn, the child must find the work personally meaningful and useful in some way.
In today’s podcast episode, let’s talk about how you can connect learning to something in the child’s current life.
Two ways parents respond:
- One kind of parent doubles down and requires the child to complete the work despite the whining, complaining, and poor performance.
- The other kind of parent tries to accommodate the resistance by making the task easier or letting it go for a period until the subject never gets done.
The first kind of parent doesn’t know how to get the child to be happy.
The second kind of parent doesn’t know how to ensure the child makes progress in learning.
Let’s look at a third way that will address both parents.
First, let’s establish the goal.
The goal is for a child to want to learn. The goal is not for a child to be happy. The goal is not for a child to merely “get through and get done.”
To create a desire to learn, the child must find the work personally meaningful and useful in some way. So much of what we ask kids to do is oriented to our adult vision—where they need to be next year or by adulthood. For kids, their vision is more immediate. What will this do for me today?
We can toggle between these two visions—the adult perspective that this subject is needed and the child perspective that the subject should be relevant to learn now.
One way to begin is to recognize that any task is felt as unnatural initially if it requires:
- and skill.
The hand is gripping the pencil and it hurts. There aren’t calluses and the grip is strained or tight. Learning to line up numbers in a multi-digit problem is not easy—the eyes don’t even know what lined up is yet. Thinking through which direction letters go or how to borrow in subtraction drains energy from the part of the brain that is drawing the letter “b” proportionately or that is remembering that for subtraction, you go “down” a digit when you borrow.
These feel second nature to us, but they are big challenges for no clear purpose to a child as they are learning.
The way we make learning meaningful, then, is not through lectures about college readiness. We can’t shame them into learning for the sake of keeping up with age mates. And sometimes we find it difficult to tie the lesson to a direct experience in the child’s current life.
That’s when we turn to a different kind of intrinsic motivation.
Here’s where parents can strengthen their hands. They must not collapse in the face of resistance, but stiffen their resolve while softening their hearts.
A child who hates handwriting, and who has been supported for a period of time in expressing thoughts and having a parent jot them down, can now be returned to the intimidating task of handwriting. You, as a parent, can come with the calm expectation that handwriting is part of your parenting routine with this child (like toothbrushing). You can express that expectation without simultaneously needing your child to be outwardly happy about it.
Try a little conversation like this:
“I know you find handwriting a little boring and meaningless. I’ve watched you learn how to play soccer through repeated kicks on goal (or insert whatever is a repetitive task—”I’ve watched you beat levels in Fortnite by just clicking the same mouse over and over again”). That’s a little how it is with handwriting—over time it gets easier with practice.
“I have an idea and want your help in making the plan. What if you don’t have to practice every day? And what if some days you hardly have to practice at all and other days are the days you set a big goal and if you hit it, you get to celebrate with something important to you? You can pick how many words per day, you can tell me what days off you’d like, and on those stretch days, you can decide what the new goal is each week. If you hit it, we can drink a rootbeer float or play cards or whatever makes a fun celebration. We can also make the days you are working hard at handwriting lighter in other subjects if you like. Can you help me with this plan?”
The point here is your child is no longer facing an endless march toward misery of committing to a daily, ill-defined task that never leads to any sense of accomplishment or celebration. The resistance is so often about the feeling of “Oh no, I’m doomed! I’ll have to do this awful thing forever so I better say I will NEVER need it now to stop that life sentence.”
- We can support the space with snacks, music, letting the cat sit in a child’s lap, lighting a candle, or moving the location.
- We can sit by the child to lend emotional support or to notice when the child’s attention flags to let them know it’s time for a break.
- We can ask for real feedback: “What was difficult today? What felt easier than usual?”
Education is not about forcing a child through lessons or ignoring what causes pain. It’s about learning how to support learning in the face of big scary challenges that feel tedious or painful to the child.
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